Are Wall Street Women's Networks Killing Women's Chances of

by Derek Loosvelt | June 23, 2011

On Wall Street, when it comes to promoting and cultivating the careers of women, the focus, for many years, has been on creating women's networks and women's mentor programs. The goals of these groups (which nearly every big American investment banks runs) have been: (1) to specifically target qualified female candidates to hire, and (2) help women rise the corporate ladder once they get in.

CEO of ICICI Bank Chanda Kochhar But given that women are nowhere to be found at the top of investment banking org charts, is it safe to assume that these formal diversity groups have been unsuccessful? Is there a better, and perhaps easier, way to increase the percentage of high-ranking female bankers? And, in fact, might these so-called affinity groups be the problem and not the solution?

Consider, for a moment, this. The following positions are all held by women: CEO of JPMorgan Chase India, CEO of UBS AG India, CEO of Bank of America India, and head of Credit Suisse's investment banking practice in India. Along with being women, the four bankers in these posts also have this in common: at one point during their careers they worked for an Indian commercial and investment bank called ICICI. In fact, according to Bloomberg, ICICI "has produced seven of India’s 14 top female financial professionals."

One of these is ICICI's current CEO, Chanda Kochhar. Kochhar (pictured at left) joined ICICI in 1984 after getting her MBA; in May 2009, she was named CEO. Since Kochhar took over as chief, ICICI's profits have doubled, and the bank's share price has risen by 108 percent. In other words, Kochhar is killing it.

As for the secret behind ICICI producing so many high-ranking female financial executives, Kochhar says the bank does this: "nothing special."

That is, the firm has no formal diversity networks for women, and instead has an unwritten "gender neutral" mindset when hiring and promoting -- all hiring and promoting decisions are based solely on merit.

Which might sound simplistic and like a lot of Mumbai-hot hot air. But it's hard to deny the quantitative evidence, or the qualitative evidence for that matter.

Due to all the successful women to come through its doors, ICICI has been called a "CEO factory" by Indian executives. And it's known among Indian recruiters to have "a women-friendly kind of culture catering to fairness and transparency."

It's important to point out that this "gender neutral" mindset of ICICI's was largely instilled by men who worked at the bank back in the 1970s and 1980s. It's also important to point out that, across India, things don't look as good as for women as they do inside ICICI. The country is one of the lowest employers of women on the planet, and at other banks based in India, men still rule the C-suite in overwhelming percentages. This means that, in India, ICICI is an anomaly.

However, the good news is that if just a few other banks in India can take a page from the ICICI female-hiring playbook, then the entire financial services industry in the country could soon be a whole lot more balanced in terms of gender diversity.

And the implication in the U.S. seems to be this: it's time for investment banks to examine their affinity programs to find out what, if anything, they're doing in the way of increasing female representation in senior roles. Is it possible that, by singling women out via formal support groups and mentoring programs, banks are further segregating women rather than helping them assimilate?

I wonder what would happen if just a single Wall Street bank would follow ICICI's philosophy -- and forget the special treatment and networks and diversity programs and simply start hiring and promoting with a blind eye to gender.

My bet is it would work a whole lot better than what that one daring bank's doing now. It certainly can't work any worse.

(Bloomberg: Top Women in India Banking Proving ICICI’s Factory for CEOs Gender Neutral)

(Related: There Are Few Women on Wall Street Because There Are Too Many Weiners)

Filed Under: Finance


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